By Cassy Sottile
The Washington College community had no access to the campus dining hall for almost two days due to a propane gas leak.
On Thursday, Feb. 13, a Department of Public Safety officer reported smelling propane gas outside Hodson Hall Commons while patrolling the campus and called the fire department. The Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company responded at 4:30 a.m.
Some students reported smelling propane gas near Hodson Hall Commons in the evening on Wednesday, Feb. 12. The valve was possibly “sporadically leaking” but could not be consistently smelled due to the wind, according to Director of Public Safety Brandon McFayden.
McFayden also responded to the scene Thursday morning, and alerted Director of Dining Services Prince Johnson that there was a leak in Hodson and the building was currently shut down.
According to McFayden, the fire department checked the whole building with a gas detection meter to see if any propane was leaking inside.
“The building was declared safe inside, so the morning dining hall crew arrived to make breakfast,” McFayden said.
The leak was reported to Tri Gas and Oil, the company that services the propane tanks. When they realized that the leak could not immediately be stopped, Hodson was evacuated and everything was shut down.
Around 6:22 a.m., Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company responded to campus again.
“On the advisement of the Tri Gas and Oil company, who were not comfortable with people being in the dining hall with open flame while they were working outside, we called the fire department again to confirm that no propane was leaking inside the building,” McFayden said. “Prince and his staff were evacuated to the Casey Academic Center lobby.”
Tri Gas and Oil discovered that the outside leak was stemming from a valve on the tank itself, and were not able to reset the valve. Their safest solution was to drain the propane into a tanker truck.
Propane is a gas that is compressed and stored as a liquid. Since Tri Gas and Oil could not access the liquid form, the safest way to empty the tank would take several hours, according to McFayden.
“The process will take more than 24 hours to offload the propane. [Tri Gas and Oil] called their regional man and a safety technician to be on standby to access the tank once it was drained,” McFayden said.
The Emergency Operations Management group, which is comprised of members from a multitude of campus resources, convened to determine how to feed the student body while the tank was being repaired.
“In general, we have two to two and a half days of product in house. Once we realized we could not use any equipment requiring gas, we began to put together menus that could be served cold and find alternative ways to get hot food,” Johnson said.
A WAC alert was sent to the campus, telling them that cold food items were being served at the Johnson Fitness Center from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
At 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, Public Safety emailed the campus that the propane leak would take longer than hoped to resolve and that all activities in Hodson Hall Commons were either cancelled or relocated elsewhere, and all meals were to be served at the JFC until further notice.
“Because of its size, the JFC is the obvious place to send students if we cannot use Hodson. Once the gas team established that the leak was only on the exterior of the building and the inside was safe, we broke into two teams — one team transporting items from Hodson to the JFC and the other team preparing food,” Johnson said.
To go with the leftover sandwiches, pizza was purchased for dinner on Thursday.
In case the leak was not repaired by the open house on Saturday, Feb. 15, the Emergency Operations Management team also planned for boxed meals to feed the prospective students and their families, according to President Kurt Landgraf.
“Nobody expects things like this,” Landgraf said. “But I am impressed with the flexibility of Prince and his dining staff. If people were unable to make it to meal times in the JFC, [they] prepared boxed meals for the students and remained dedicated to serving the students.”
As it relates to food, the protocol for this and any emergency situation is to find quick and timely alternative ways to feed the students, according to Johnson.
“Whenever we are serving food we always make sure there are items available for students with special dietary needs. On Friday I sent out a campus email letting students know that if they could not make it during designated meal time or had a dietary issue they could call Kayla Young, Maria Hynson, or myself,” Johnson said.
Sophie’s Café in Clifton Miller Library was resupplied on Friday, Feb. 14, and the vending machines across campus were restocked, according to the Feb. 13 Public Safety email.
Since breakfast was only served in the JFC on Feb. 14 until 9:30 a.m., Kappa Sigma made pancakes at Dorchester House from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
“We do this usually on snow days when no one can leave and the weather is bad,” senior and Pledge Educator of Kappa Sigma Nick Gottemoller said.
Despite the time crunch for advertising the breakfast to campus, there was a fairly good turnout for the breakfast.
“We have got the supplies, we are known for pancakes, so why not provide breakfast?” junior and President of Kappa Sigma Colin Levi said. “Some people suffered yesterday by not having Hodson open for breakfast.”
The draining of the propane tank was completed by early afternoon. At 2:47 p.m., the campus was alerted that the leak had been repaired and service to Hodson was restored.
According to Johnson, of the three propane tanks that service Hodson, the leaking tank was taken off line so the building was operating on the remaining two.
“On Friday we were using our ‘AutoShams,’ which are electric ovens, to make an Italian themed meal for diner but fortunately we were able to get back into the dining hall,” Johnson said.
Late Friday night, another gas leak was mistakenly reported in Hodson Hall Commons. This was discovered to be a false alarm, the residual odor lasting from earlier repair, according to the WAC alert.
Once Hodson was given the all-clear to open, the dining hall staff quickly prepared food for lunch to ensure everyone could eat, according to Johnson.
“I was very proud of the dining team,” Johnson said. “They performed beyond expectation.”
While Hodson was out of commission, the dining staff continued to work to feed the students, a feat that was not overlooked.
“I personally observed many, many students thanking the dining staff for all they were doing to make sure they were getting meals,” Johnson said. “WC is a special place, and when we see our community coming together supporting and encouraging one another during tough times, it shows just how incredible this place truly is.”
Opinion Editor Victoria Gill-Gomez contributed to this report.